State unseals $1M DPS settlement

Former New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

State Risk Management officials on Monday unsealed yet another $1 million settlement related to claims against the state Department of Public Safety for gender discrimination, harassment and whistleblowing, including a $100,000 payment for alleged violations of the state open records law.

The latest settlement disclosed by the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham involved a lawsuit brought in June 2018 by three State Police supervisors and brings the total taxpayer payout for claims against the DPS to nearly $3 million since 2015, state records show.

The lawsuit, filed by a State Police sergeant, lieutenant and a top-ranking deputy chief, contended that then-New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas fostered a climate of systematic discrimination and retaliated against those who opposed his improper conduct. All three have retired or resigned from the agency.

Kassetas, who denied any wrongdoing, retired in December.

“We think we achieved good results for our clients and that we stand by our case and believe that it was not only meritorious but we had ample evidence,” Santa Fe attorney Diane Garrity said. “We know that had we gone to a jury, we would have prevailed.”

Garrity, represented by co-counsel Linda Hemphill, filed a second lawsuit against the state General Services Department last August for allegedly violating the state Inspection of Public Records Act in failing to turn over records related to settlements of claims “which concerned the office of Gov. Susana Martinez, who has reportedly protected Kassetas from his known retaliation against whistleblowers.”

The DPS and Kassetas in public records denied any wrongdoing. But in December, the state entered confidential mediation to settle Garrity's two lawsuits – and another set of claims filed by three other female employees at the DPS last fall that had not surfaced publicly.

Attorneys representing the DPS agreed to settle all three cases as long as the amounts paid were kept secret and the parties involved agreed not to discuss the case or settlement terms until at least 2022.

Kassetas told the Journal on Monday, “I was against settling any of these claims prior to the Martinez administration doing exactly that. Their claims are not based in fact.”

DPS spokesman H.L. Lovato released a statement saying: “Our goal is to create and maintain a respectful, fair and inclusive environment for all employees. Discrimination, harassment and retaliation undermine the integrity of our agency. These behaviors will not be tolerated.”

The DPS has 1,303 full-time employees, of whom 796 are State Police command officers.

In the lawsuit filed by then-NMSP Sgt. Monica Martinez-Jones, now retired Lt. Julia Armendariz, and former Deputy Chief Ryan Suggs, who was second in charge at the NMSP, the state extended the confidentiality period to June 2023.

Lawyers for the DPS contended in the settlement agreement that the extended confidentiality period was authorized by state law.

But earlier this year, Lujan Grisham opted not to enforce the lengthy gag orders after Kassetas appeared in a television news interview complaining that the cases had been settled.

State law requires state Risk Management officials to keep settlement records confidential for at least 180 days but gives several other time periods for release, such as when a case is closed, or when the statute of limitations for such claims has expired.

The lawsuit filed by Martinez-Jones, Armendariz and Suggs alleged in part that Kassetas “mooned” employees after a Ruidoso commanders meeting and sent a text message of a man's testicles blocking out the sun to a female deputy chief.

But the three supervisors also alleged gender discrimination, failure to promote, harassment and retaliation by Kassetas.

Kassetas was accused of “blatant, ongoing and systematic discrimination against NMSP officers based on gender and sexual orientation.” He was also alleged to have retaliated against “those who oppose his unlawful, discriminatory and improper conduct.”

Garrity told the Journal on Monday that the $100,000 from the open records case will be shared by the three former DPS supervisors, bringing the total received to $1 million.

“Plaintiffs have filed this lawsuit in the hope that by bringing their claims to light, they will help to create a more hospitable working environment for all protected classes of workers at DPS, and for those who have the courage to stand up for what is right,” their lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said then-DPS Cabinet Secretary Scott Weaver and Deputy Secretary Amy Orlando “may have attempted to address issues regarding Kassetas's improper behavior and to discipline or terminate him but have been precluded from doing so based on orders from Gov. Susana Martinez and her staff.”

Orlando contended in a complaint filed with the state Human Rights Bureau that she was subsequently harassed and retaliated against by Kassetas and others in the Martinez administration. She and two other DPS employees who filed complaints received a total of $1 million in a settlement reached in the final days of the administration.

Other settlements involving the DPS included $200,000 paid in 2015 to Ruben Maynes, a member of Martinez's security detail, after he alleged discrimination and retaliation, and $650,000 received by four former employees of New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy in 2016 to resolve their pending whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against the DPS, then-DPS Secretary Gordon Eden, and the officials at the training academy.

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